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Art Nouveau Antiques Buying Guide

Art Nouveau is a short-lived yet impactful design era that emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Although its dominance lasted only 20 years (1890-1910), Art Nouveau produced a variety of intriguing pieces. If you are looking for an investment option that is not only bound to increase its value but also put a smile on your face, Art Nouveau antiques fit the bill.

While many styles prior to Art Nouveau relied on visual forms of bygone historical epochs, artists of the late 19th century endeavoured to create something completely new. As a matter of fact, Art Nouveau in French literally means new art.

Features of Art Nouveau Antiques

Art Nouveau antiques can be identified by their unique features. In particular, these are harmonious forms composed of flowing lines, floral and animal motifs, as well as an abundance of natural materials. After all, ‘Back to Nature’ is the unspoken slogan of this style.

Art nouveau urse, pattern and cabinet door

Celebration of Curving Lines

Stylistically, Art Nouveau rejects straight lines and angles due to their man-made character. Instead, it favours natural flowing, undulated, and curving lines that as if imbued with organic energy. These lines transition into images of flora, fauna, landscapes, natural phenomena, etc. 

Art Nouveau interior designs strike the right chord with nature lovers. They welcome furniture, furnishing, and decorative elements that seem to be made by Mother Nature herself. Rooms embellished in the Art Nouveau style rarely have corners – they are rounded and filed down. The style prohibits the use of items with rough sharp edges. They are replaced with streamlined, semicircular, and soft silhouettes.

Artistic Unity

Another feature of the ‘new art’ is an attempt to create designs in which every individual element is linked with another to form a single artistic whole. William Morris (1834-1896), an English artisan, artist, poet, and socialist, stood at the origins of the so-called aesthetic synthesis. According to Morris, objects that surround a person contribute to his or her moral standards. He tried to transform his home into a harmonious environment that would serve as a guide to ideal human relationships and a lifestyle ennobled by art. Belgian modernist Henry van de Velde repeated Morris’s experiment. He designed every single thing in his mansion from cutlery to doorknobs with cohesiveness in mind. 

The principle of artistic unity of all design elements enriched Art Nouveau interiors with phenomenal integrity and completeness.

Natural motifs

Nature was the source of inspiration for the artists of the new era. The most common themes of Art Nouveau antiques include buds (as a symbol of new life), exotic flowers with long stems and pale petals, as well as aquatic plants (such as lilies, irises, algae, etc.).

Along with that, Art Nouveau spruced up interiors with stylized images of insects and birds – dragonflies, butterflies, peacocks, and swallows. Although Art Nouveau intends to convey the beauty, dynamics, and fluidity of nature through motionless forms, it by and large ignores realism. Instead, it portrays nature in a dreamlike, exaggerated fashion. Besides that, it honours dreamy and fantastic creations of the human mind including mythical animals, dragons, as well as folklore imagery.

Worship of the Female Body

The female body ceased to be a taboo at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike the beauties of the Victorian period, women of that era were able to show more skin, and artists met this exposure with enthusiastic approval. They deified the female body with its grace and curves. Images of women with incredibly long, flowing hair found their way into interiors in the form of statues, candlesticks, stained glass windows, metalwork, posters, etc.

Colour Solutions

Art Nouveau colour combinations have a semantic rather than decorative significance. As we already mentioned, the themes of water and aquatic plants are the calling card of the style. They are implemented through a variety of blue and green shades ranging from dark and ‘swampy’ to almost yellow. These aquatic colours are never solid or ‘flat’. On the contrary, they harmoniously co-exist with the strokes of gold and silver, which create sun glares on the water. Along with that, a touch of silvery-lilac, pink, grey, and black, as it were, envelops interiors in fog. That being said, certain décor items were designed to become an interior’s focal point, for instance, a peacock’s tail in vibrant electric colour.

Materials

The Art Nouveau interior is a harmonious combination of materials and decorations. Metal, stone, wood, glass, wallpaper, painting, stained glass, mirrors – all these items could be found in the rooms of that period. Exquisite wooden tables were often paired with a glass top to accommodate a frosted glass lamp or a ceramic vase full of fresh flowers. Textiles with a delicate pattern embellished sofas, armchairs, tables, and also captured the entire wall with the window. Art Nouveau curtains reached the floor and featured lush drapery.

Art Nouveau Antique Jewellery

Art Nouveau pendant sold for £300,000 at Christies

Unlike pale diamond-clad Edwardian jewellery (both styles existed during the same period of time), Art Nouveau brings coloured gems to the fore. It was strewn with amethyst, agate, opal, peridot, garnet, citrine quartz, etc. Alongside gemstones, pieces display inlays of natural materials (horn, shell, mother-of-pearl), coloured glass, as well as enamel. One of the much-loved materials of this style is pearls, specifically baroque pearls. They are known for larger size and quirky irregular shapes, which aligned with the style’s passion for asymmetry and curving lines.

Expensive and luxurious metals are an uncharacteristic feature of Art Nouveau. Even if an item was made of gold it was rather low-karat. In place of noble metals, jewellers utilised steel, brass, copper, and silver.


Art Nouveau Enamel

During Art Nouveau’s ascendancy, enamel reached its heyday. Although most of the techniques existed long before the 20th century, the new art made a significant contribution to their refinement. Overall, Art Nouveau enjoyed mixing and intertwining various techniques in the same piece. Plique-à-jour enamel created a stained-glass effect in jewellery, Champlevé added depth and expression to imagery, and Basse-taille emphasized the complexity of the low-relief patterns cut into the metal.

The majority of Art Nouveau jewellery is handmade (as opposed to machine-made buttons, cufflinks, or charms, which also sport the visual features of this style). French craftsmen endowed their products with hallmarks related to the type of metal (for example, an eagle’s head corresponded to gold carats) but did not use the maker’s mark. A list of renowned French jewellers is unimaginable without such names as René Lalique, Georges Henry and Jules Brateau.

British and American jewellers, on the other hand, did not mark their products in any way. Instead, they put their names on the jewellery boxes. The most coveted pieces of the Art Nouveau period were crafted by British jewellers Liberty & Co., Archibald Knox, C. R. Ashbee, while Louis Comfort Tiffany captured the market across the Atlantic.


Art Nouveau Is Much Sought After

Due to the fact that the ‘new art’ era lasted only twenty years, Art Nouveau antiques are relatively rare. In addition, many items were made of fragile materials (such as glass and enamel) that hardly stand the test of time. Pieces survived to this day tend to bear some sorts of wear. Nevertheless, if you get hold of Art Nouveau collectables or jewellery, you may consider yourself lucky – these items are real works of art.